Washington (CNSNews.com) – Members of Congress – this time armed with more than 100,000 signatures – renewed their call for top Pentagon officials to drop charges against three Navy SEALs for allegedly mistreating an al Qaeda terrorist suspected of killing four Americans in Iraq.
The three SEALs will face trial in April and May.
“They should not be court martialed but hailed as heroes for doing their job,” said Rep. Dan Burton (R-Ind.) at an event outside the Capitol Thursday where two petitions were released. “What kind of message does this send to people who lay their lives on the line every single day?”
One petition, organized by the offices of Burton and Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.) had 35,000 signatures. The other, organized by the conservative weekly Human Events had 118,155 signatures.
The three SEALs are Petty Officer 2nd Class Matthew V. McCabe, 24 of Perrysburg, Ohio, Petty Officer 2nd Class Jonathon E. Keefe, 25, of Yorktown, Va., and Petty Officer 1st Class Julio A. Huertas Jr., 28, of Blue Island, Ill.
The petitions are going to Maj. Gen. Charles T. Cleveland, commanding general of Special Operations Command Central, who ordered the court martial after the three declined to take an administrative punishment that would have meant admitting guilt. Cleveland has the most direct role over the proceedings. The petition has also been sent to Adm. Gary Roughed, chief of Naval Operations.
McCabe was at the Capitol Hill event but did not speak. His attorney Neal Puckett is confident his client will be found innocent in the court martial, but is hopeful public opinion could help McCabe avoid the entire process.
“Public opinion certainly can convince high level military officials to convince Gen. Cleveland to change his mind about this,” Puckett told CNSNews.com.
McCabe hopes to continue his career, Puckett said, and took a Naval exam to qualify for a promotion that morning before coming to Washington.
The three were part of a team that captured Ahmed Hashim Abed, the alleged architect of the murder of four Blackwater USA security guards in Fallujah, Iraq, in 2004. The bodies of the four Americans were mutilated, burned, and hanged from a bridge over the Euphrates River.
McCabe is charged with assault for allegedly punching Abed in the mid-section, with dereliction of duty for failing to protect Abed, and with making a false statement.
Keefe is charged with dereliction of duty for not protecting the terror suspect and making a false statement. Huertas is charged with dereliction of duty, making a false statement, and impeding an investigation. He pleaded not guilty at his arraignment.
The alleged incident happened on Sept. 1 at Camp Schweidler in Iraq, when Abed was already in captivity.
If convicted in the special court martial, the maximum penalty for all three SEALs would be up to one year of confinement, forfeiture of part of their pay, and a bad conduct discharge. The charges are equivalent to misdemeanor charges, or a special court-martial in military terms. A general court-martial applies to more serious charges, or felonies in civilian standards.
“This prosecution clearly undermines our national security apparatus and those on the front lines of keeping us safe,” Rohrabacher said. “There is nothing more important than the men and women out there on the front lines. These guys should be given medals, not court martialed.”
Rohrabacher stressed that the nation and members of Congress must get behind the SEALs.
“They did their job. Now we’ve got to do our job and back them up and make sure this court martial is cancelled,” Rohrabacher continued. “This is turned upside down. Our government has taken the word of a terrorist over the word of our defenders.”
A military judge moved the trials of Keefe and Huertas to Camp Victory in Baghdad, a military base in Iraq, after defense attorneys asked that their clients be able to face their accusers. Their trials are scheduled to begin in April. McCabe did not request the chance to face his accuser, thus McCabe’s trial will proceed in May in Norfolk, Va.
Puckett declined to tell CNSNews.com why his client did not need to face the accuser.
Nevertheless, Puckett said there will be needless expense to the taxpayers in transporting all of the witnesses in the case to Iraq.
“Hundreds of thousands will have to be spent so he (Abed) can get his day in court,” Puckett said.
In December 2009, 34 House members signed a letter circulated by Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.) that called on Defense Secretary Robert Gates to intervene in the case.
“It appears from all accounts that these SEALs are exceptional sailors, demonstrated by the fact that each had recently been advanced in rank,” the House letter said. “They captured a terrorist who had planned an attack that not only killed Americans, but also maimed and mutilated their bodies.
“We believe that prosecution of these sailors for such an apparently limited action will have a negative impact on others in the military who risk their lives in dangerous, often ambiguous situations.”
A separate letter from Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.) said he does not want to see the careers of the three SEALs cut short “predominantly on the allegation of a murderer and our driving need to be politically correct.”
“Because of the impending court martial, three U.S. SEALs have been removed from the battlefield as will various others who will be called as witnesses,” wrote Ensign. “There is also the issue of how these charges will affect morale, recruiting and retention within the SEAL community, the U.S. Navy and the armed forces as a whole.”